Culture

Star Trek's Wasted Women, Part 4: Dr. Pulaski, Guinan, and Ensign Ro

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing dialogue about Star Trek, women, and feminism in pop culture. See Ash’s previous installments on Tasha Yar Deanna Troi, and Beverly Crusher; also check out April Bey’s “An Artist Trekkie’s Guide For Becoming a Better Person.”

Dr. Katherine Pulaski

Just give me a second to get my flame-retardant suit…

I like Dr. Pulaski. No, wait, come back! I know a lot of people hate her, and honestly, that usually comes down to one thing:

Data

This guy.

I’m not going to pretend like she wasn’t mean to Data (she totally was), and I don’t forgive it (I’m also a fan of Data), but the reason I like Pulaski’s character is that she was, well… kind of a bitch. This probably sounds really counter-intuitive, but think about the time in the show when she appeared: Gene Roddenberry was still calling the shots, and one of his stipulations for TNG was no interpersonal conflict between the crew. The reason for this is because allegedly everybody is “evolved” and past that kind of thing or whatever. While idealistic, this made for bad drama.

I feel that if Diana Muldaur had stayed on the show, and as much attention had been given to her character as Beverly got, she might have been able to have been developed into a more sympathetic person and kinder towards Data. There are shades of an attempt there, such as in the episode “Peak Performance” where she encouraged him to think outside the box in order to beat Kolrami at Strategema.

Ultimately the entire relationship was a bad rehash of the one between Spock and McCoy on the Original Series. What worked then failed because Spock and Data were inhuman in very different ways and this made Pulaski seem like a bully whereas McCoy came across as merely teasing. The tragedy is that this take on Pulaski isn’t the result of being a mere ripoff, but instead a wholesale re-purposing of McCoy’s character.

The Fake McCoy

The Fake McCoy

It also has to be kept in mind that many of the episodes Pulaski appeared in were recycled from Star Trek: Phase II, and she was blatantly ripped off from Dr. McCoy from the original series. The reason this happened is because of the 1988 Writers’ Strike, which lead to the producers using the unused scripts from Phase II that featured the Original Series cast. Adapting McCoy to become Pulaski would have required minimal rewrites during the strike. As a result, Pulaski was never really given a chance to develop on her own, largely remaining a carbon copy up to her final appearance.

Muldaur’s experience on the show led her to decide never to do Trek again, which is a shame. An interesting development would have been to have her and Beverly on the ship at the same time, battling it out over their different decisions in medical matters.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0f0hns2AVW0

Guinan

Can a Negro be magical in a sci-fi setting? Guinan pulls it off. That aside? Great character. Well, other than being another who dips her toe into Mary Sue waters, as well occasionally being reduced to a plot device *cough* Generations! *cough*.

Intelligent, tough, knowledgeably, and fairly mysterious, Guinan is one of TNG’s more memorable characters due to a combination of Whoopi Goldberg’s acting and her irregular appearances. Whenever you saw Guinan, you had a fifty-fifty chance of two things happening. The most frequent is when Guinan gave stealth advice via a memorable speech (which happened frequently enough to become its own trope).

Comic relief

If Guinan wasn’t doing her almighty janitor thing, she’s going to have a hilarious interaction with one of the main crew. It is through these interactions that we actually learn the most about her character. A mother, a sharp-shooter, an ageless immortal, all were set pieces to emphasize the concerns of the main characters. The opposite was also true — some of the most fascinating things about Guinan came up in brief interactions, and we’d learn frustratingly little about her.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Te9U3mihUZ8

The episode “Q Who” is the worst example of this. In the episode, Q is threatening the crew of the Enterprise again, but Guinan happens to be present, causing her to take a stance that is implied to be combative. This is Q we’re talking about, a member of a species who is said to be omnipotent, and this particular member has no problem with abusing his power to silence an uppity mere humanoid.

Q also goes as far as to imply that Guinan might be a threat of some kind. None of this is ever followed up on again outside of a brief meeting where Guinan casually stabs Q to confirm that he had indeed been made into a human in “Deja Q”. Truly, the worst thing you could say about Guinan is probably that we didn’t get enough of her, on her own terms.

Ro Laren

Everything people hate about Major Kira? Check. Everything people love about Major Kira? Check. This makes sense, seeing as Ro Laren was intended to be on Deep Space Nine in the first place, but that’ll be expanded on later. As for her time on TNG, they took the character to her logical conclusion within the series by having her join the Maquis in her final appearance. Ro was never really a good fit for the Enterprise crew, and that was ultimately the whole point.

In “Ensign Ro,” her first episode, Ro was standoff-ish, prideful of her Bajoran heritage, and made it pretty clear that she was not particular generous when it came to the Federation, or Starfleet in particular. Ro actively defied Starfleet protocol by wearing her Bajoran earring, and was penalized by Commander Riker.

This comes of as arrogant and needlessly combative, but also kind of points out a certain hypocrisy since Worf is allowed to wear his sash. Being at odds with the crew is partially due to her background as a Bajoran refugee, providing an intriguing contrast in the lives of Federation citizens who want for nothing (practically guaranteed on Earth), and people like Ro, who had to deal with a life of suffering under Cardassian rule.

Over time, Ro becomes genuinely personable in the episodes when she had her memory wiped along with the rest of the crew, in the episode where she started a fling with Riker, with whom she shared mutual loathing. This mirrors the eventual development of Kira Nerys, who started similarly and softened over the course of the first season and onwards to DS9’s finale. Like Guinan, she didn’t get much time, but she was effective when she did. Soon we’ll be discussing some of TNG’s female characters that weren’t seen as often, but still had potential.